WASHINGTON (AP) – President George W. Bush said Saturday he is encouraged by the increasing size and capability of the Iraqi security forces, touting progress on a key measure of when U.S. troops can come home.
The upbeat remarks in Bush”s weekly radio address came two days after the top commander in Iraq said only one Iraqi battalion is ready to fight without U.S. support.
"All Americans can have confidence in the military commanders who are leading the effort in Iraq, and in the troops under their command," Bush said. "They have made important gains in recent weeks and months; they are adapting our strategy to meet the needs on the ground; and they”re helping us to bring victory in the war on terror."
The sunny presentation of the situation in Iraq is part of a renewed push by the administration to win support for the war effort from an increasingly reluctant American public.
It conflicts with the news from Iraq and some assessments from top commanders.
On Friday, Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said Sunni Arab opposition to Iraq”s draft constitution has increased the potential for instability and called into question U.S. hopes for substantial troop cuts next spring.
It was the second time this week that Casey rolled back his July prediction that "fairly substantial" troop withdrawals could begin next spring.
On Wednesday, he told Congress that only one Iraqi army battalion was ready to go into combat without U.S. support, down from three estimated a few months ago. He argued, though, that the Iraqi army is getting stronger, with more than 30 Iraqi battalions deemed capable of leading combat operation against insurgents, albeit with U.S. help.
Bush said more than 100 Iraqi battalions are operating throughout the country. "Our commanders report that the Iraqi forces are serving with increasing effectiveness," he told radio listeners.
Buffeted by criticism over his administration”s response to Hurricane Katrina, Bush sought this week to shift his public focus back to Iraq and to the anti-terror fight. He built a reputation for commanding leadership and won re-election in part on those two issues, but polls indicate the public is becoming more troubled by the daily U.S. casualties in Iraq and the uncertain prospects for victory.
At least 200 people have been killed in the past five days, including 13 U.S. service members, and the number of American troops killed in Iraq since the start of the war is approaching 2,000.
Sunni insurgents hit two Shiite towns in two days with brutal bombings that killed more than 110 people, apparently aiming to scare Shiites from the polls ahead of a crucial vote on the new constitution. In the latest attack, a car bomb ripped through a produce market Friday packed with morning shoppers.
Vegetable stalls were left twisted wreckage amid pools of blood in the al-Sharia Market in the southern city of Hillah, in Iraq”s Shiite heartland. The scenes mirrored the devastation in Balad, a Shiite town in the middle of a Sunni region north of Baghdad, where the previous day”s triple bombing was far more lethal and officials were still counting the dead.
Both attacks appeared to be intended to cause as many civilian casualties as possible, tearing through markets and commercial streets and killing 22 women and children.
In Friday”s Hillah attack, a car parked in the market exploded at about 9:30 a.m. as shoppers were making purchases on the day off before weekly Islamic prayers.
At least 10 people, including three women and two children, were killed and 41 were wounded, said Dr. Mohammed Beirum of Hillah General Hospital.
Hillah, about 95 kilometers (60 miles) south of Baghdad, has been the scene of frequent attacks during Iraq”s two-year insurgency, notably a February car bomb that killed 125 people, the deadliest single bombing.
In Balad, officials were still trying to determine the toll from three car bombs that detonated within minutes of each other in an outdoor produce market and two nearby commercial streets Thursday evening. A nearby U.S. military base where some of the 150 wounded were taken handed over bodies of some who did not survive, bringing the death toll to 102.
Bush did warn of an upsurge in violence before Iraqis vote Oct. 15 on a new constitution. If approved, it would form the basis for elections in December of a permanent Iraqi government.
"As Iraqis take these next steps on the path to freedom and democracy, the terrorists will do everything they can to stop this progress and try to break our will," the president said. "They will fail."
Other encouraging signs Bush cited were the recent killing of Abdullah Abu Azzam, al-Qaeda”s No. 2 leader in Iraq, and the closing of a main route for foreign terrorists coming into Iraq from Syria.
Gen. John Abizaid, commander, U.S. Central Command, earlier cited several encouraging signs in Iraq. He said the main battles against the insurgency had shifted to western Iraq, "which is a good sign, a good indicator that Iraqi and U.S. forces are having an effect elsewhere."
Also, he said, infiltration of foreign fighters across the Syrian border "remains a concern, but it”s down." "Our strategy in Iraq is clear," Bush said. "We”re hunting down deadly terrorist leaders. We”re conducting aggressive counterterrorism operations in the areas where the terrorists are concentrated. We are constantly adapting our tactics to the changing tactics of the terrorists, and we”re training more Iraqi forces to assume increasing responsibility for their country”s security."